UK Dementia Congress: Coming together in a virtual space

As academic sponsor, UK Dementia Congress is a big deal for the Association for Dementia Studies, but obviously with the current situation getting large numbers of people together in a conference was not going to happen. The conference therefore moved online and was held virtually from 10th to 12th November. Congratulations to the Journal of Dementia Care for organising it all and getting it up and running. This blog provides an overview of the various presentations ADS was part of, but also reflects on some of the differences between a virtual and face-to-face conference.

ADS presentations

Throughout the course of the three days, ADS had a number of different presentations taking place as well as Professor Dawn Brooker chairing a plenary session.

Reflections on going online

By this point in the pandemic I think many people have got used to being part of virtual meetings, so it perhaps wasn’t as strange having a conference online as it would’ve been a few months ago. However, it did require getting used to yet another new platform and finding out how to navigate your way around. While instruction videos were provided, there was a feeling that a ‘more visually intuitive home screen’, preferably with more images, would have been useful and inviting.

The platform was slightly more complicated for us as we had a virtual ‘stand’ or exhibition space which needed to be populated with various items, and for the three team members assigned to the stand it was tricky as they had to keep swapping between being ADS and themselves to access various parts of the platform.

Networking and the social aspect

It was nice to see how many people were in the same session as you, but it didn’t necessarily feel as connected as normal. Attendees could visit the ‘stand’ without us knowing, and while some people might prefer that as networking isn’t everyone’s favourite thing, it could feel like a bit odd for those ‘manning the stand’ as they had no idea if anyone was there or not. There was also no excuse to buy sweets for the stand when the stand didn’t actually exist and it’s just you in your living room! Also, there was no chance to stock up on pens for the coming year by visiting other stands.

Pen anyone?

There were different ways to get in touch with other people, but at times it felt like there was limited interaction. You could message exhibitors or individual attendees, or set up virtual meetings with people, but we didn’t see much of this happening – unless people just didn’t want to talk to us! When meetings did happen, they were good and did feel like an opportunity to make connections with new people. It did create a bit of pressure though, as there was a constant need to keep checking the stand to make sure we hadn’t missed any messages or meeting requests. The email alerts were quite useful for this though.

The forums appeared to be a useful way of sharing ideas around different topics, but it seemed to take a while for people to find them and get involved, as initially they didn’t seem widely used. Indeed, throughout the conference they seemed very quiet. Engagement via the chat option worked better during the few live sessions with lots of comments and discussion, but people appeared more reluctant to comment on the pre-recorded videos.

There was also a virtual delegate bag which we had items in, but there was no indication of how many people looked at it. As we couldn’t ‘see’ people there was no feedback on what they were doing, so it did feel a bit isolating and deflating at times as we weren’t sure what sort of pay off we were getting for the amount of effort that went in to getting everything set up.

One member of the team liked being able to create their own profile, and these profiles were useful for finding out who people were, but not overly helpful when people didn’t add any details. This was truly a case of ‘what you get out is only as good as what you put in’.

From a more social side, I think we all missed seeing our colleagues in person (especially after being out of the office for so long), and having hugs and chatting over a glass of wine in the evening. As the old advert said, ‘it’s not all work, work, work!’

Despite the various options to contact other attendees, one of the team missed ‘the networking opportunities, the opportunistic chats, meeting up with people I don’t see from one year to the next’. The value of such ad-hoc interactions and off-the-cuff chats can often be underestimated, but in reality can play an important role in all our work.


Most presentations were recorded in advance, which one colleague mentioned they preferred. This was because their role as a presenter was out of the way before the conference started, and they could attend without being worried about having to do it live.

The ability to set up a schedule with presentations you want to watch was good, and did feel a bit like circling sessions in an actual programme to plan your days, but with less chance of missing them. While presentations were made available from set times, you could watch them in your own time when it suited you. It also meant that you did not miss out on presentations when they clashed with another you want to go see, as you could simply go back and watch them later on when you had time.

Being able to pause a presentation to nip to the toilet or answer the door, or not starting it until you’ve got a cup of tea was definitely a bonus, and meant that you didn’t have to worry about considering leaving a session early to avoid queues for the toilets!

Having recorded presentations also meant that some of us were more likely to try sessions that we weren’t sure about, meaning we could hear from a wider spread of presenters than you may at a physical conference. You can always stop the video if it’s not what you were hoping for, rather than worrying about appearing rude if you want to leave a session. Conversely, one colleague who recorded a presentation in advance liked it as they couldn’t see people leaving the auditorium in the middle of them speaking!

Not all colleagues liked this video format though. Some found it a bit boring or hard to engage with some of the sessions as they are not the same as a live presentation.

Comfort and emotions

While it can be nice to be at a conference in person as it’s a chance to be a bit more formal and professional, there’s something to be said to relaxing and begin able to enjoy sessions while wearing your slippers.

A couple of colleagues also commented on being surprised how moving some of the recordings and talks have been even though we’re not ‘there’, but it felt easier to release any emotions in the privacy of your own home. One colleague liked being able to “let the tears come without fear of people seeing me” during emotional sessions, while another said “I usually get a bit choked up listening to people’s experiences at UKDC, but this year with no mascara on and no-one sat next to me in a conference hall, I was able to have a full on weep at some of the stories told!”


From a more practical perspective, although work was involved to record the presentations and coordinate items to go on the ‘stand’, there was no need to sort out travel and accommodation for everyone or get materials printed and couriered to a venue, which I know members of our admin team were particularly pleased about!

However, I think many of us agree that it’s still quite tiring to attend a conference virtually. At least none of us had to travel home afterwards, coordinate dinner with colleagues, or force ourselves to be sociable when actually we just want to relax.

So overall, while UKDC this year was a different experience, it was still informative and gave a good snapshot of what is going on in the world of dementia. We missed seeing everyone, and I’m not sure how well it worked for people outside of ADS, especially those living with dementia, but if this is a preview of the future I think that while there’s plenty of room for improvement it’s a good starter for ten.

Connect with ADS on twitter @DementiaStudies and on Facebook @adsuow

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